Our Documents at Work in the Nation's Classrooms
Winter 2003, Vol. 35, No. 4
By Lee Ann Potter and Daniel Rulli
During the Fall of 2003, the National Archives, National History Day, and U.S. News & World Report co-sponsored The People's Vote: 100 Documents That Shaped America. It allowed people to vote for ten documents, from the one hundred featured in Our Documents, as the ones they think most changed the course of history, shaped the United States, and defined Americans as a people. Results of the vote can be found at www.ourdocuments.gov.
"These 100 documents are a sacred part of our history as Americans. I did not realize how truly special they were until I shared them with my seventh graders."
— Lori Maynard
Fruitvale Junior High School
Thousands of educators are using America's most important historic documents to help students learn the story of their nation and its citizens, thanks to the Our Documents initiative.
This was one of the main objectives of Our Documents, which is part of the "National Initiative on American History, Civics, and Service," launched by President George W. Bush in September 2002. It is co-sponsored by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), National History Day (NHD), and the USA Freedom Corps.
Since the launch, teachers around the country have been tapping into the resources on the Our Documents web site, directing their students to it, and encouraging students to produce National History Day projects based on the documents. They are also incorporating suggestions from the Teacher Sourcebooks into classroom instruction, participating in the national lesson plan competition, and developing course assessments based on Our Documents. Finally, they are telling others about the initiative.
The Our Documents web site (www.ourdocuments.gov) features full-color images of one hundred milestone documents, drawn primarily from the holdings of the National Archives; transcriptions; brief essays that place the documents in their historical context; and resources for teachers. The National Archives web staff has gathered statistics on the site's usage, and the numbers are quite impressive. For example, visits to the site are increasing: in October 2002, we recorded nearly 30,000 visits; by April 2003, that number had jumped to more than 100,000—an increase of more than 300 percent.
In addition to viewing the documents, visitors to the site can access the Teacher Sourcebooks. These two volumes provide suggestions for using the milestone documents in the classroom. Both volumes contain the list of one hundred milestone documents, an explanation of key themes in the documents, a timeline putting the documents in chronological order, lesson plans and classroom exercises, information on the student and teacher competitions, and a bibliography of works related to the documents.
Nearly three thousand sourcebooks were downloaded from the web site in the first nine months of the project, with a 400-percent increase in downloads between 2002 and 2003, and forty thousand hard copies of each were printed (with the generous support of Newsweek and the History Channel) and distributed.
In conjunction with NARA and the Our Documents project, NHD for the first time offered an opportunity for history, social studies, civics, and government teachers to develop document-based lesson plans for national awards and distribution. "Teaching Our Documents: A Lesson Competition for Educators" invited teachers to develop and test a classroom lesson focusing on one or several of the milestone documents. Lessons were designed to engage students in a meaningful examination of the documents within their historical context.
The first awards were announced at the annual National History Day national competition on June 15–19, 2003, at the University of Maryland at College Park. Teachers were required to adhere to various guidelines in preparing for the Our Documents competition. The three national winners created a fourth-grade lesson on Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, an eighth-grade lesson on Washington's Farewell Address, and a seventh- through tenth-grade lesson on documents related to Jim Crow laws. They were typical of the variety and creativity of the participants' submissions.
As part of their entries, the teachers were required to include an essay describing how well they thought their lesson worked as well as letters of recommendation from their students. These essays and recommendation letters reinforce the effectiveness of teaching with documents and illustrate the teachers' enthusiasm for the Our Documents initiative.
For example, Lori Maynard, a teacher from Bakersfield, California, emphasized
Indeed, the best moment of the lesson was when I gave a student who was "always doing what he is not supposed to be doing" the Declaration of Independence. He actually read it and was interested in it! This led to another fascinating discovery: None of my students had ever seen the Declaration of Independence, and all of them studied it quite deliberately when they had it in their hands. I believe this document has a special meaning to all citizens in these insecure times we are living in today. A question that was frequently asked was, "Is this really it?"
Similarly, a fourth-grade student from Orlando, Florida, whose teacher introduced her to Thomas Jefferson's 1803 secret message to Congress regarding the Lewis and Clark expedition, expressed her enthusiasm by saying, "I experienced something new. While I was reading it I saw that Thomas Jefferson had nice writing. Can you believe that I saw the same words as the Congressmen?" In addition to incorporating the documents into lesson plans, educators have also developed term projects and assessments based on the documents.
Within a few minutes of his first perusal of the list, James Percoco, a history teacher at West Springfield High School, in Springfield, Virginia, said it became abundantly clear that these one hundred milestone documents aligned beautifully with the United States History Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs)—the standards upon which students are tested each spring after their nine-month study of American history. He designed an Our Documents unit plan that engaged students with the documents through web use, research, oral presentations, and a one-hundred-question multiple choice final exam that included a question based on each document.
Percoco shared with NARA and NHD staff that "this activity was particularly effective in that it reached students with all kinds of learning styles and gave them freedom of choice as to how to learn the material. The presentation aspect of the unit asked students to employ their communication skills. This activity, in short, offered both teacher and students an opportunity to meet local standards in ways that went beyond rote learning and teaching." A complete description of Percoco's activity is available in the second volume of the Teacher Sourcebook.
In addition to the formal response from teachers to the competition, many educators at numerous national and regional conferences have mentioned their use of Our Documents with students at the elementary and secondary level as well in the development of document-based teaching strategies among education students at the university level and their colleagues.
H-TEACH, the history educators' LISTSERV, hosted by H-Net at Michigan State University, carried a conversation started by a teacher in Massachusetts about developing "Our Documents Too"—a list of one hundred milestone documents in world history. In addition, the National Archives education staff and the staff of National History Day consistently introduce the site during teacher workshops, and both organizations have received e-mail messages indicating that entire document-based social studies curricula are being developed based on Our Documents.
The Our Documents project has succeeded not only by creating a dialogue among citizens about our country's documentary heritage but also by encouraging document-based teaching in America's classrooms.
Referring to his lesson on Washington's Farewell Address, perhaps Dan Beuhler of Denver, Colorado, said it best:
Finally, there is nothing more rewarding than reading the actual words of our first President and coming away with an appreciation of their importance for the time they were written and for the relevancy that they carry today. This will not happen unless students work with the primary source in question.
Lee Ann Potter is the education team leader in Museum Programs at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
Daniel Rulli is an education specialist on the Education Team in Museum Programs at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.